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Businessweek Archives

`This Is Joe Blow Dry, Live From Mars'

Developments to Watch


EVANS & SUTHERLAND COMputer Corp. has lowered the cost of sending your local newscaster to, say, the bottom of the ocean. Its system inserts real people into virtual settings on live TV. Unlike simpler systems that create only backdrops, this one immerses the person inside the computer-generated scene, with virtual objects appearing in both the foreground and background. An overhead camera tracks the person's movements, calculating which objects should be in front and which behind.

The newscaster, game-show host, or corporate trainer stands in front of a blue-matte screen. The blue is subtracted from the image and replaced with a computer-generated scene. Since it's mainly for live TV, the merging of real and pretend must be nearly instantaneous. Each new frame is composed in under 1/30th of a second, the time between frames in television.

Such high-end systems can cost $500,000 and up. Salt Lake City-based E&S says it cut the price by assembling all the components itself and putting its graphics processor into a Windows NT workstation instead of a costlier Unix-based machine. The MindSet 100 Virtual Set starts at $99,500.EDITED BY PETER COYReturn to top

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A FIRE NEEDS FUEL, heat, and oxygen to burn. Normally, chemical extinguishers work by displacing the oxygen. But a vegetable-based compound developed by Fire- Freeze Worldwide Inc. in Rockaway, N.J., neutralizes the fuel source and heat instead.

FireFreeze's product, Cold Fire, is made from waxes of several plants, which it won't identify for competitive reasons. When mixed with water, Cold Fire produces a foam that penetrates flammable materials, coating them so they can't release vapors that would burn. Cold Fire can be sprayed onto fires or used preventively to coat objects or people. The foam also rapidly lowers temperatures to below the flash point of the flammable material.

Used by firefighters since 1994, Cold Fire extinguishers are scheduled to go on the consumer market early next year, pending regulatory approval. Because it does not use as much water as regular fire extinguishers, Cold Fire causes less water damage. It's nontoxic and biodegradable.

The process was created by FireFreeze CEO Juergen Geissler's grandfather in Germany in the 1930s to cope with silo fires. His grandson took an interest in it when he was in Kuwait destroying Iraqi mines and saw the damage wrought by oil-well fires.EDITED BY PETER COY By Susan JacksonReturn to top


BACTERIA SHOW A NASTY ability to develop resistance to drugs, leading companies to search for new antibiotics and new targets. One such target is a substance called lipid A, which is found in the outer membranes of many bacteria. Over the past decade, biochemist Christian R.H. Raetz, now at Duke University, has uncovered a complex 10-enzyme pathway that bacteria use to make the substance--and has shown that bugs lacking the proper enzymes quickly die. No one knows exactly why lipid A is necessary for growth, he says, "but without it, the outer surface [of the bacteria] becomes leaky."

Raetz's findings helped prompt a team of scientists at Merck & Co.--where Raetz worked until recently--to search for compounds that inhibit the enzymes needed to make lipid A, thus killing the bacteria. Now, in the Nov. 8 issue of Science, they report they've succeeded. They have made several related chemicals that block the second enzyme in the 10-step pathway. Two of the chemicals cured mice of a normally fatal infection. Because the chemicals can't yet get into all types of bacteria and safety tests lie ahead, "it's not something I'd advise buying Merck stock on," cautions Raetz. But the results offer hope for a new weapon in the never-ending battle against microbes.EDITED BY PETER COY By John CareyReturn to top

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